Commitment to freedom of speech is a weighty political litmus test for liberalism—libertarians and anarchists often engage with radical liberalism’s awesome propensity towards freedom. However, within the anarchist and anti-fascist locus there is an intense scrutiny of liberal ideals, a sentiment which grows seemingly in proportion with alt-right publicity.
I commend libertarian thinkers for generally hosting good discussion and framing about how to discern legitimate threats of violence vs maintaining a commitment towards freedom of expression and open discourse, so I won’t try and navigate the precise ethics of when violence can be justified in the cause of anti-fascist action, nor the paradox of tolerance, nor make a rights claim for liberal speech norms.
Although I’m not currently taking classes, I live in a college town where I recently attended for a few years which involved many years of activism under various banners and continues to elicit my engagement: libertarian, feminist, anti-racist, anarchist with S4SS, and otherwise. College campuses ideally provide a unique and dynamic platform for young minds to be challenged as new thoughts shape actions and new actions shape thought. This places the campus as a premier locus for raising new generations to hold values we deem correct.
As a general rule, I regard discourse as a foundational value for a free and socially capable society. So long as rights are not being violated, speech remains a powerful tool for communication of values. Suppressing competition in the realm of ideas likely would lead to the best ideas not being able to gain their deserved social share, and isolation of bad ideas renders them to fester into even worse ones. Those regularly engaged in politics probably can note the alienating feeling of entering an echo chamber belonging to a group you’re not familiar with. Different contexts give new meaning to words, complicating the communication of ideas. Without having to be challenged, you’re less likely to be correct, and the more likely you are to have a hard time effectively reaching broad audiences and to break out of echo chambers.
Having aligned with groups on campus broadly seen as “leftist” in aims of social justice, I’ve been made aware of the intense institutional uphill battles that the marginalized face, and witnessed all too many losing interpersonal battles. Fighting the dominant power system leaves you vulnerable and under the false guise of the mistaken moderate liberal idea that ‘equal protection of the law’ can be achieved in a fundamentally unjust society, it seems that any new legal avenue to enforce restrictions on individual action will almost certainly skew in favor of the existing schema. Any calls for a net increase in statism such as laws suppressing allowable speech are antithetical to anarchist praxis. When our government is still beholden to power, do not give them any tools to oppress.
As a grounding example of theory, I recall protests against Richard Spencer’s visit to our campus last December. Protests were lively, with minimal arrests. The main injuries were from police violence, the most serious being a concussion caused by the butt of a shotgun to a dear friend’s skull who was peacefully protesting fascists who were being protected by State Troopers. Ultimately, I had a few main takeaways from my role as an organizer: protests attract people from all over. You cannot plan what will happen in a chaotic environment, only minimize harm as it spontaneously arises. Most of this harm involved the interjection of police which elevates state violence to becoming an inescapable reality. Lastly, high pressure scenarios like protests give way to more desperate and impulsive action than might occur in other arenas.
Recalling the ongoing paradox of tolerance, we can think strategically about violence and the role of police in activism. As cultural wars intensify, police presence increases undeniably. While tepid moderates try to gain mass appeal through co-opting a non-violent and non-radical aesthetic, riot shields will increasingly separate the involved marginalized masses fighting for their vision. The typical tactics of anti-fascist movements must be called in: are loud protests, violence, and leftist organizing capable of achieving anything more than giving the state more power and the police more chances to cause harm?
Black-bloc clad persons of all stripes showed to our protests, generally from the communist, socialist, or anarchist milieu, making an incredible show of force. Though they did not make up the majority of protesters by any means, their impressive display of USSR, red, and/or anarchist flags could not be ignored. This seems to have been a critical first exposure to radical leftist ideology for a lot of millennials who were previously uninitiated to protest culture. This gives the impression that the protests were much more radical than the average of its constituents, whilst contributing to a high emotion environment.
While I am pretty connected to and generally appreciative of anti-fascist action networks, some of the militancy in those circles seems to feed into fascists’ hands by allowing them to look like the victim of “wild communists seeking to destroy America” or some other spin, especially if antifa initiates force. When nazis show up to events they dress and prepare for violence but usually try to incite opponents into throwing the first punches. Coupled with increasing police presence at these types of events (that could be amplified with further speech laws), I don’t find it unreasonable to conclude that antifa faces a severe disadvantage and might only be putting people from generally marginalized backgrounds in the path of danger from fascists or the blue backing them.
A unique anarchist response would be one that relies on avoiding or countering police violence, that learns how to face evil without giving into ungrounded reactionaryism, and reaffirms a commitment to open dialogue. While I can’t stress the importance of anti-fascism enough, the modern institutionalization we witness of the movement does not seem readily compatible with anarchist principles, and I urge caution when entering these spaces. More and more I find myself wanting to film police than to participate in the actual protests. I want to talk to the people on the ground about their experiences protesting and I look for ways to be proactive in preventing high-stress situations from arising. It would be irresponsible for me to join this Left-led bandwagon and assume that liberal ideals should be tossed out in the name of freedom, or to not move to center state violence as well in our conversations about activism. Letting our rich diversity of thought guide us, my hope is that we can move towards a more peaceful and equitable solution.